When my fifth-grade son, Jeff, walked up to me after class a week ago, I noticed white specks on the front top of his scalp. I almost screamed the four letter word that sends shivers down the spine of most elementary school parents: Lice.
While it turned out to be a false alarm, the panic was real. I immediately started picking at the specks in his hair and asking him, “Were you scratching your head today?”
“What are you doing, Mom?” he said, pushing my probing hands away.
“Has your head been itching?” I asked frantically as I picked at more strands of hair. My own scalp started to itch and I knew that my voice had taken on a fevered pitch.
Jeff’s eyes pleaded with me to stop, but I didn’t care. Although we were standing on the school playground with hundreds of kids and parents whirling around us, trying to get off campus, I was focused on the investigation, hoping that the lousy critters hadn’t chosen my son’s dark blond locks to lay their eggs in. Pick, pick (scratch). Pick, pick (scratch).
The flakes came off easily when I ruffled Jeff’s hair, so I thought it might be dandruff, but I wasn’t convinced until we got home and I’d thrown him into the shower, combed his hair several times and checked the whole family for infestation.
Paranoid? You bet.
Two weeks before, Jeff had two friends who had the little buggers take up residence and I could still see the exhaustion from the experience in their parents’ eyes.
One of the families is among the cleanest I know; the kind where you take your shoes off when you come in the door, they sterilize doorknob handles, and clean the crevices of computer keyboards and counter surfaces with abandon. The mom spent a week in purgatory with her two kids as she washed bedding, clothing and couch cushion covers in the hot cycle, put pillows and stuffed animals in plastic bags for 10 days, combed and searched for nits in her kids’ thick hair until her eyes ached. But the lice returned – twice.
It’s a common misconception that getting lice is a matter of poor hygiene. According to Danville-based Nit-Wits Lice Treatment, it’s actually difficult for lice to feed and reproduce on dirty hair because of scalp oil and debris.
But the stigma attached to an infestation can be profound. Lafayette-based LoveBugs notes that anyone can get lice from any person with whom they have close contact (85 percent of siblings, 75 percent of mothers, 20 percent of fathers, and 50 percent of babysitters, nannies or housekeepers catch head lice in an infested household).
So how do you know if your child has lice? And if they do, what should you do about it?
Lice are the size of sesame seeds, and the nits stick to shafts of hair, not far from the scalp. If you do find lice, the pediatric website AskDrSears.com suggests treating children with a medicated shampoo as well as anyone else with an itching scalp or who shares a bed with the child. (Not everyone who has come into contact with your child needs treatment.)
Soak brushes and combs in very hot (nearly boiling) water for 10 minutes, and use the hot water cycle to machine wash pillowcases, sheets, hats and clothing worn over the past few days. You don’t need to wash every item of clothing and you don’t need to have the house fumigated. Vacuum sofas, beds and pillows, and what you can’t wash, seal inside a large garbage bag for 10 days. Check the child’s scalp every two to three days for new lice or nits, using a nit comb to ensure you’re getting at every strand of hair.
Next to the common cold, head lice is the top reason kids miss school. Dealing with lice is just another hurdle for us parents to jump. So when Jeff came home with a notice from the Mount Diablo Unified School District last Friday stating that he’d been exposed to head lice in his classroom again, I wasn’t freaked out.
OK, maybe just a little bit.